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Hunting buddies Hodges, Washington building rapport

PITTSBURGH (AP) — James Washington knew what was coming. It’s why the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver didn’t hesitate when he saw the Cleveland Browns jump offside early in the second quarter on Sunday.

At the snap, Washington ditched his intended route and raced upfield. Call it the byproduct of spending plenty of practice time catching passes from rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges.

“You just go deep and hope he throws it your way,” Washington said.

And Hodges did, lofting a rainbow down the left sideline that Washington caught for a 31-yard gain that provided the spark Pittsburgh’s sputtering offense needed to come to life.

Washington and Hodges — newfound hunting buddies — were in the middle of it all. An acrobatic 30-yard touchdown grab by Washington late in the first half tied the game. A 44-yard strike early in the third quarter set up Benny Snell’s 1-yard score that put the Steelers ahead to stay in a 20-13 victory that kept them in the thick of the AFC playoff chase.

Washington finished with four catches for a career-best 111 yards, displaying the kind of game-breaking ability that led the Pittsburgh to take him in the second round of the 2018 draft. After a season and a half of progressing in fits and starts, Washington appears to have developed a rapport with Hodges that he couldn’t find with Ben Roethlisberger or former college teammate Mason Rudolph, who was benched last week in favor of the player known universally as “Duck.”

Maybe spending time together in the woods helps.

Washington and Hodges went duck hunting last week with Hodges — a champion duck caller on the side — luring them in and Washington — who grew up around farms in Texas — taking them out. They plan to do it again on Tuesday to celebrate Pittsburgh’s sixth win in its past seven games.

“I tell him I’m a better shooter than he is, so you call them in and I’ll shoot ’em,” Washington said. “That’s kind of how it works.”

Hodges admitted the outings with Washington makes things “a little more comfortable” on the field, though he stressed there’s no need for the rest of his teammates to put on their camo if they want to create a vibe with him.

“We all have our different types,” Hodges said. “So I’m just trying to fit in with those guys and doing whatever it takes to build that relationship. It makes it a lot more calm in the game.”

Hodges certainly looked calm while completing 14 of 21 passes for 212 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He will get another start on Sunday when the Steelers visit Arizona (3-8-1) and is building a pretty compelling case to be given the nod the rest of the way. The Steelers are 3-1 when he makes an appearance, the only loss coming to Baltimore back on Oct. 6 when wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled in overtime.

Hodges wasn’t perfect. He fumbled out of bounds while attempting to scramble early in the fourth quarter and threw a pick when he tried to go deep to Diontae Johnson with the Steelers protecting a seven-point lead with 7:30 to go. Still, he wasn’t fazed by the stakes.